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Is the rise of male make-up a sign of a new era of masculinity?

TextOliver Lunn

From Ezra Miller to Sean Pablo, is the ubiquity of men in make-up across broader spheres indicative of a turning tide?

Will a man in make-up ever not be a punchline in crass schoolboy jokes by Jeremy Clarkson and his ilk? Will a man’s glossed lips and bronzed cheeks ever be seen not so much as a statement, a mark of otherness, but rather, nothing to bat an eyelid at? Will a man in make-up ever be 100% socially accepted, like a woman in make-up?

Make-up wasn’t always so gendered. Look at 18th century England and those dudes with pale powdered faces and bright red lips. The pasty look was popular among high society, their paleness a mark that they could afford to stay indoors and do shit all. If it was accepted back then, maybe it can happen again – minus the connotations of social status. Maybe this year the conditions are ripe.

“Is 2019 the year men’s make-up goes mainstream?” was the question Vogue posed just last month. The headline looms above an image of Jared Leto with eyeliner and foundation. In the article, luxury brands such as Chanel, Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs are cited as architects of this new male beauty landscape, having all launched cosmetic lines specifically for men in 2018.

It was a calculated step by the brands, of course. They were simply reacting to a growing cosmetic appetite among young males. In 2016, 15% of UK men under the age of 45 bought make-up, according to a 2018 report by The Future Laboratory. By 2020, the same report predicts that the male beauty and grooming market is set to be worth more than £47bn ($60bn, €53bn).

The backdrop for this imminent “mainstreaming” of male make-up is more favourable than it was, say, 10 years ago. Fixed ideas about masculinity are increasingly coming under the microscope, not just in progressive circles, but yes, in the mainstream. Gillette caused a stir by confronting toxic masculinity in an ad, just as Lynx caused a stir by ditching their macho man-chased-by-scantily-clad-women ads to sell deodorant. Cynics will see the iffy side of brands cashing in on a wave of wokeness. But surely the positive end result is what counts? Surely everyone benefits from these brands being – gulps – patted on the back for their efforts?

As always, there is a backlash. The likes of Piers Morgan (he called the Gillette ad “emasculating”) feed into the fear of judgement surrounding men in make-up. It shows how instilled rigid ideas of masculinity truly are. For some, the only tolerable men in make-up are those onstage. If you’re David Bowie, fine. If you’re in an 80s New Romantic band, sure. Anything neatly contained under the broad umbrella of ‘performance’ is absolutely fine, so long as it doesn’t creep into the aisles of Waitrose, the platforms of Paddington.

What’s more encouraging now, and what’s noticeably changed in recent years, is the ubiquity of men in make-up across broader spheres, whether it’s YouTubers (James Charles and Patrick Starrr) or actors (Ezra Miller and Cody Fern). Even some pro skaters wear eyeliner and paint their nails, like Supreme skater Sean Pablo. Their influence is clear. Where once kids rolled up to the skatepark risking a fat lip for their androgynous style, they’re now generally accepted, their style seen as a hat-tip to their heroes. Skaters, YouTubers, actors – all are feeding into a growing acceptance of men in make-up, ushering in a new era of masculinity.

Beyond style, though, men wear make-up for different reasons. It’s not always about self-expression, about imitating Robert Smith or the newest K-pop star. For some, it’s about boosting confidence and kicking low self-esteem about poor skin to the curb. So they can be themselves. So they can leave their flat and feel comfortable in their own skin. Male cosmetics go way beyond the show biz glitz of magazine cover models and pop singers under the spotlight.

Visibility of men in make-up is key in driving wider acceptance. To make it not necessarily the norm, not the dominant trend, but common at the very least. The more people see men in make-up, the more confidence other men will have to run with it themselves and not feel like they’re taking some great leap of faith. And that’s the point. It shouldn’t feel like every time you apply a shade of tinted eyebrow pencil you risk being verbally abused in a pub on a Friday night.

Not every man, of course, will willfully reach for eyeliner or matte moisturising balm. But to have that choice – to see it in the men’s aisle at Boots – is essential. And with brands waking up to gender fluidity, to the idea that not every guy aspires to look like Channing Tatum, this choice is emerging. What does it mean for the future of male cosmetic beauty? One would hope a broader embrace of gender fluidity and a plurality of types and trends. That’s how we reach a point where male make-up isn’t narrowly seen as a marker of what tribe you belong to, like: I wear X therefore I am Y. It’s also how we dispel the idea that you’re less masculine if you use eye shadow.

Just as gender is less clearly defined today, make-up and masculinity are no longer mutually exclusive. There’s space, in other words, for a new kind of masculinity. As Chanel put it in a statement attached to its male cosmetics launch: “Beauty is not a matter of gender, it is a matter of style.” And as more brands follow suit, taking tentative steps into male cosmetics, slowly but surely we’re inching towards a time where men can do whatever the hell they like with blusher and bronzer. With zero fear of raising so much as a (pencilled) eyebrow.

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